18 January 2010

My 21 Favorite Albums of 2009

2009 — what a crapsuck of a year. Without overstating or getting into it, it was easily the worst since, well, high school at least and I am not sorry that it is over. If I ever needed an object lesson in saving power of music, this was it. Music was one of the few things that keep the year from being a complete personal disaster.

I've read others claim that 2009 wasn't a great year for music. In one sense I agree: there were few great albums — albums good enough to be considered for regular rotation let alone my favorite 100 albums of all-time. On the other hand, there were a significant number of "pretty good" albums released this year. These albums are good enough to keep around for occasional airing and mix-tape fodder if not ohmigod you got to hear this moments.

Albums 1-3 on my list are ones I consider "great" and have received many spins over the year and will probably receive many more over the next. On my personal rating system, they are the only albums I gave a 5 out of 5 to this year. Albums 4-21 all received a 4 out of 5, and they exhaust this category.

Not that this makes my list any more valid than the next guys, but I did try to keep up with new music this year. The following albums are culled from around 60 that I got this year. There were, more or less, three types of albums I picked up in the last 12 months:

1) New albums by artists I already like: albums from, for instance, Slayer, Clutch, Raekwon, Patterson Hood, Franz Nicolay, Marilyn Manson, Neko Case, etc. None of these albums made the top 21. (Maybe I'm a harsher critic on the artists I already love?)

2) Critically acclaimed albums: albums from, for instance, St. Vincent, Grizzly Bear, The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, Phoenix, Dirty Projectors, Girls. None of these albums made the top 21, though Girls would be #22.

3) Other albums that I thought might like for various reasons, like reading a review: many of these are in the top 21, but also include decent-but-not-great albums from Anaal Nathrakh, Lightning Bolt, Doomriders, and Emilie Simon.

I tell you this in an attempt to explain where my list is coming from and to (maybe) alleviate some why didn't you include X?

(I planned on including a song from each of the following albums, but my internet situation is, uh, unsettled. I'm posting this from the laundromat down the street, so I can't really upload anything. Apologies.)


Bonus: Worst Album of the Year: Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
I cannot explain the depths of my hatred for this crap except to say: if this is the future of all music, like in a Bill & Ted type world, I'm selling all my records and becoming a monk. No joke. I can't explain why I hate it so much because to do so would require me to listen to it again and, though I may be a masochist, I'm not that much of a masochist.

Bonus: Most Disappointing Album of the Year: The Flaming Lips - Embroynic
They said it's a return to form. My favorite Lips album is In a Priest Driven Ambulance. Ergo, I thought I'd love it. Three tracks, maybe, but the rest deserves a slow shake of the head and closed eyes. Not a return to form.

Bonus: Album I like but only got after making the rest of the list and I'm to lazy to go back and revise it: Melody Gardot - My One And Only Thrill
I love Gardot's first album — it was one of the main albums that helped me get through the crapsuck of 2009 — despite my dislike (more or less) for jazz and jazz-y type music. I only found out that she released a new album 10 days before the end of the year. It's more consistent than her first and probably better.

#21: Converge - Axe to Fall
So low only, probably, because it was the last one added to the list and I haven't entirely digested it yet. Also it wasn't a big year in metal for me. Converge is a band I've been wanting to get into for a long time. Even so, this is the first (and only) album I've heard from them. It's good, if you like this sort of thing.

#20: Mastodon - Crack The Skye
Mastodon, or "The metal band all the indie kids love," as I like to call them, isn't exactly my cup o' tea. It's fine, and I like Crack The Skye more than Leviathan but less than Blood Mountain, but I don't get why the kids — indie and metal, for that matter — love it so much.

#19: Wild Beasts - Two Dancers
A hit-or-miss album with top-notch hits and no horrible misses averages out to "good." All The King's Men is the track that convinced me to get the album and it's probably my favorite, despite the hokey vocal hook. We Still Got The Taste Dancing On Our Tongues is another highlight and not just for the title.

#18: The xx - xx
It's way to indie for me to truly love it, but I have no problem with it appearing high up on other lists. Infinity is great, but the slow-burn earnestness of Shelter is my favorite track on the album, and one of my favorite tracks of the year. There's enough stuff here that I find middling (including the tedious Fantasy) for it to be ranked higher, but enough good that it still gets a spot.

#17: Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career
I've only heard and gotten into Camera Obscura in the last few months. I fully admit that my like of this album may be because we're still in the honeymoon phase. A solid album, even if it lacks many highlights. The opener, French Navy, is one of the better pop songs of the year I heard. The closer, Honey in the Sun, is also up there.

#16: Alela Diane - To Be Still
If this were a list of my favorite albums I got in 2009, Diane's "The Pirate Gospel" could be #1. This album smooths the rough edges that were on Pirate — which is mostly a bad thing. The first half is fine if unexciting, but the second half makes up for it, starting with My Brambles, the best track on the album. Diane is quickly becoming one of my favorite female vocalists.

#15: Wax Tailor - In The Mood For Life
Got into Wax Tailor this year through the excellent and prolific Everything On My Ipod. As with most albums like this — DJ/Hip-Hop/Turntable, beat/sample-based — it's best listened to as one complete whole. Still, the poppy Dry Your Eyes, Leave It, and Greenfields easily stand on their own and are the highlights.

#14: Röyksopp - Junior
Really hit-or-miss, but the best tracks are amazing. The Girl And The Robot with Robyn on the vocals, is probably my favorite dance track of the year and one of my favorite tracks regardless of genre. Tracks 8-10 are what keeps this album from being higher.

#13: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
I may be alone in this, but I always thought that Jason Isbell was a step below Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, his former compatriots in the Drive-By Truckers, as a songwriter. But Isbell's two solo albums have forced me to re-evaluate. This album is — and stop me if I've said this before — more consistent than his first but also lacks the greatness of tracks like Shotgun Wedding or In a Razor Town. Which isn't to say there are no highlights here. Clearly there are: Cigarettes & Wine is my favorite, but Sunstroke, The Blue and The Last Song I Will Write are great examples of Isbell's strength — the mid-tempo number.

#12: Russian Circles - Geneva
How do you judge instrumental post-rock? I have very little idea and I'm still relatively new to the genre. But like porn — isn't this how the saying goes? — I know it when I see it and I know what I like. Russian Circles has more of a metal vibe to it than most other post-rock bands, which is something I dig. The 10 minute closer Philos is the stand out track: reminds me of a more assertive Explosions in the Sky.

#11: Mandy Moore - Amanda Leigh
I know, right? I got this after reading a review at the awesome My Hmphs. Not many pop singers — or modern musicians in general — mine 1940's popular music for sounds and ideas. Moore does that on most of these tracks (the single I Could Break Your Heart Any Day Of The Week being the notable exception) to good effect. The best way I can describe highlights like Pocket Philosopher or opener Merrimack River is that they sound like a Preston Sturges film.

#10: Regina Spektor - Far
When I look at my list, I wonder if I ranked this album too high. See, Regina Spektor is an artist that I don't love and, on paper, wouldn't love. I don't find myself wanting to put her music on all that much. But when I do, even if it takes a few songs to get into it, I go all "Why don't I listen to this more often?" So, I don't know what all that means. Apparently it means the tenth best album of the year. The lead single "Laughing With" is my favorite and was an antidote to the crapsuckiness of 2009 I talked about in the introduction.

#9: The Antlers - Hospice
This blurb will say less (remarkable, I know) than any other blurb from this list. Why? I'm not sure how to describe this album — either in terms of its characteristics or in terms of why I like it. For the former, all I can say is that the vocals are mixed too low but that's probably okay given the ethos and pathos. For the latter — get back to me. Maybe I'll be able to say something intelligent after six dozen listens. It's best to listen to the entire album (and get the booklet, which is linked through the wikipedia article), but Bear and Two probably stand on their own the best.

#8: Pelican - What We All Come To Need
See my comments on post-rock in #11, though I think this is more "instrumental metal" than post-rock. Close enough, and the same thoughts apply. A solid album all the way through and difficult to pick any highlights.

#7: Baroness - Blue Record
Justifiably one of the more critically acclaimed metal albums of the year. It has more of a classic rock influence than most metal — this is a good thing! And, to my ears, there's some riffs and guitar lines that wouldn't sound out of place on a late-70's Queen record. Oh, it still rocks and it still shreds and it's still undeniably metal. If you want to get into metal but don't already like it, there are worse places to start. A Horse Called Golgotha is my personal fave.

#6: Tiny Vipers - Life On Earth
I want to say I heard about this album through John Darnielle's blog, but I can't be sure. This album took me a long time to listen to — I do most of my music listening while working or writing. Life On Earth does not lend itself to the background. It's quite and subtle enough that it demands you pay attention to it. Which is all fine because it's a great album and she has a great voice. Dreamer and the 10 minute title track are my favorites, though there are no truly weak tracks.

#5: The Mountain Goats - The Life Of The World To Come
And speaking of John Darnielle. First, let me say I love the conceit of using bible verses, but not explicitly talking about what the verses say. This reminds me of Krzyztof Kieslowski's miniseries "The Decalogue," which I also love. Second, there are no bad songs here and picking highlights is difficult since any track could do. Third, and this is the bad part, it's his second worst album (ahead of only Get Lonely) since All Hail West Texas. That it still gets #5 is just a testament to how awesome Darnielle is as a songwriter.

#4: Antony and the Johnsons - The Crying Light
What I said about Regina Spektor, above, is true here as well, even more so: I rarely want to listen to it, but it blows me a way when I do. Between this album, I Am A Bird Now and the Hercules and Love Affair album, I think you could make the claim that Antony Hegarty is one of the best vocalists working today. Best tracks? Epilepsy Is Dancing and Aeon.

#3: Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse Present: Dark Night Of The Soul
This album was never officially released due to a legal dispute with the label. But you can find it out there and the artists have condone the downloading since they like it and want it heard. And it should be. It's a magnificent album and you ought to have it. All I'll say is that the title is apt and it's one of the better late-night-drinkin-whiskey albums I've heard.

#2: William Elliott Whitmore - Animals In The Dark
Whitmore's first three albums are most acoustic, dominated by his banjo or guitar and rarely (if ever) using percussion. So it surprised the bejesus out of me when Mutiny, the first track on Animals, opens with just drums playing a martial beat before he intones: "It's a goddamn shame..." And the only other instrument is an echoing choir. It's amazing and one of the best political songs I've heard. (That's how I choose to interpret it, anyway.) It doesn't get better from there because it can't, but the entire album maintains the quality. Essential.

#1: Yusuf - Roadsinger
You know the story. In 1977 the man known as Cat Stevens converts to Islam, changes his name, and quits music while still at the near-top of his game. I grew up listening to Cat Stevens music so it has a great deal of nostalgic value. But it's not just nostalgia unlike, say, Billy Joel. Stevens had one of the best voices in pop music and wrote some of the more interesting pop music and, philosophically, had some of the better lyrics in pop music.

This, his second album since returning to non-religious music, is the best of his career. And it's the best album of 2009.

His voice hasn't deteriorated. It's still strong and emotive as those early 70's albums. Lyrically, time has only given more to write about and more perspective. Musically, it's similar to his classic albums.

I've long claimed that suffering makes the best music; the worst thing an artist can do to his music is to get happy. You can look at the history of music and find so many examples to support this claim. Stevens' 70's work is a good example. It's difficult not to interpret it in light of his eventual life choices, but it's not exactly wrong to do so: he was looking for something better, something bigger. (Consider Sitting, for example.) That lack, the cause of suffering, informed his best music. What makes Roadsinger his and the year's best is simple: it's a potent counterargument to the previous paragraph.

This album is from a man who is content, a man who has found the truth (or at least believes he has). But unlike crap like the entirity of CCM, it's not necessarily religious and it's not intended as commercial. Yusuf comes of as a man who is it peace with himself and he'll help you if you want him to, but if you don't he'll wish you the best as you move on your way.

Not that it's all happiness and rainbows. There's a recognition of the darkness in the world (ahem - World of Darkness, most explicitly) but it's coupled with the sadness that comes with knowing the right choice is difficult to make but also with the knowledge that we have the ability to make the choice despite the external realities.

Which is why, in the crapsuck that was the year, when the black dog came and came hard, something like this:

Saw a sign on the path: All seekers this way
A very subtle left through a petal my way
As I neard the bridge two soldiers stood and stared
No one passes by us up ahead
But you're welcome here.

and the next verse:

Carried on down the road to the marketplace
I was still alone and no one knew my face
Then a stranger sang with voice like the wind
Then the hails began to sing:
"Welcome in."

and the conclusion, spoken from experience:

Time rolls on and so we carry on
Time rolls on, ain't no good to sit and moan

provided both the promise of hope and the promise of things to come. That's the saving power of music, the ability of song to make things better, to tip the scales from the red back to the black. Sometimes that's all that's needed even if that little bit won't change the world.

(Posted by Lin)

1 comment:

The Eyebright Bugler said...

Ooh, I'm gonna get me that DM/Sparklehorse album tonight, & a bottle of whiskey for listening time.